Ice Ice Horsey

In 1942, during World War II, Curzio Malaparte, an Italian journalists, was sent by an Italian newspaper to cover the fighting on the Eastern Front.  He turned his reports of that time into the international best seller Kaputt.  One story he tells in this book concerns a fire, a lake, horses and ice. 

It was winter and Malaparte was posted with the Finish army, who were fighting alongside the Nazi’s, on the shores of Lake Ladoga.  The Nazi’s were bombing the area around the lake, which started a forest fire.  In the middle of the forest there were hundreds of Soviet horses locked in their stables.  As the fire began to reach them, they panicked and broke out of the stables rushing through the burning trees.

They burst from the forest and made their way straight towards the lake, and one after the other they stampeded into the lake when suddenly…. the lake freezes, trapping the horses in an icy tomb.  Malaparte describes the aftermath, saying that even the waves created by the stampeding horses were frozen in mid-air.

The next morning Malaparte and some other men find that the fire has burned down the forest completely; and there, barely visible in the smoky morning air, is the lake.  An eerie scene now, as it has become a sculpture garden with hundreds and hundreds of horse heads sticking out of its surface.

These horses remain entombed for the rest of the winter.  The lake became an attraction for the locals who would frequent the scene, wondering how such a thing was possible.

How was this possible?

It’s widely known that the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius.  But what if it wasn’t?  What if you could cool water to, let’s say -20 degrees Celsius?  Well, you can.

To accomplish this you need the purest of water.  Completely distilled. No minerals, nothing.  Water molecules are actually not very good at knowing when to freeze.  Unless, that is, something is introduced to show them how to build a solid structure.  This is called a nucleator.  It can be something as simple as a speck of dust.  From this, the water molecules are forced into a crystal structure surrounding the object and spread outward.

As a side note, this is how and why snow is created.

So is this catastrophic freezing event that occurred in Malaparte’s story true?  Fortunately for the horses it is very, very unlikely.  The events that Malaparte describes in this story, while possible, is highly improbable.  There would have to be many, many things that had to happen for this to occur; not the least of which the lake would have to be completely pure and distilled.  Maleparte was known to mix fact and fiction, particularly with this story as many believe it to be a metaphor for cosmology.  But that is another story… 

To find out more about this you can read Malaparte’s book Kaputt. Also the  Radiolab podcast has a great episode entitled Super Cool, that talks about all of this. Link below.

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